This story appeared in the May 2012 issue.
By Alan Kesselheim
Waves rise up, walls of water. Gut-twisting power. The cold talons of certainty: too big, too cold, too much, too late. Every canoe for itself, diving and wallowing, water sloshing to the gunwales, the thrust of brute survival, stroke by stroke. A canoe goes over. Then another. Heads in the river. The cold. The awesome knowledge of where you are.
Through the years the memories keep rising up. In the midst of a board meeting. Holding a grandson. Waking from a vague, desperate dream.
One gaping moment that swallowed a life, and on which five others pivoted. A moment that has haunted Skip Pessl for more than 50 years. Half a century of reliving, reworking, regretting, wanting it back, and then moving on, because there is nothing else to do. Nothing to do but move on, like the current of the dark, powerful Dubawnt River in the heart of the Barren Lands of the Canadian Far North.
Now 79 and retired from the U.S. Geological Survey, Skip Pessl is a man with time to think back on his life. For more than a decade, he has been revisiting his journals, comparing notes with surviving expedition members, rekindling his memories. “For years, now,” he says, “there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t thought about that trip. Many nights I go to sleep thinking about the Dubawnt, especially that freezing day in September.” His voice is quiet yet strong, his thoughts clear. He looks down at his hands as he speaks, the memories almost visible, working across his face.
September 14, 1955, deep in the Barren Lands of Nunavut, near the confluence of the Dubawnt and Thelon Rivers. Six men. Seventy-five days out. Food almost gone, weather desperate. The end of the expedition still more than a week away.
Pessl’s 1955 journal sketches the events.
. . . after completing a short portage, loaded the canoes and continued our dash down the river. It was cold and windy, the sky was overcast and we stopped at frequent intervals to warm our feet and legs.”
[We] approached what we thought must be the last rapids with confidence and impatience. Art stood up . . . looked ahead, and . . . drove his canoe for the middle of the flow. . . . The next thing I saw as we shot around the bend was a white wall of huge waves. . . . Beyond the thundering waves, the yellow camera box and Art’s gray canoe bobbed crazily in the rapids below.
“I remember the shock of that view, the waves, the capsized boat, the yellow box floating free, like it was yesterday,” Pessl says. He falls silent, gazing out the window.
Pessl’s canoe capsized after Moffatt’s. Only one boat of three managed to stay upright, and then to work at rescuing men and gear in the eddy below. As with any such rescue, it was fraught with desperation and fear. It took twenty minutes or more for Franck and Grinnell to get to shore, unload, dump water and gear from their swamped boat, and return to their comrades. Grinnell fell out of the canoe during the rescue. As the men crawled to shore out of the frigid river, their clothing froze solid in minutes.
We managed to tear the frozen clothing off Art and Joe, wrap them in soggy sleeping bags and as much dry clothing as we had. Pete got a small fire going and we carried Art close . . . George . . . struggled into the bag with Art. ‘There’s no pulse. I can’t hear a heart beat,’ George whispered. It happened so quickly, seemingly so easily; no violence, nothing dramatic; a brief struggle and then an empty finality.
Moffatt, at 36, a father and husband, filmmaker and charismatic adventurer, the trip elder and mentor, was dead. The other five men, none over 22 years old, would be changed forever. They’d spent months on the vast, untrammeled tundra, shared grueling labor, sublime awe and the thrill of penetrating a wild frontier. They’d witnessed the gritty dissolution of group harmony. Now it funneled down to this: a rocky shore on a bitter day with a man dead and the trip nowhere near done.
In the decades that followed, the Moffatt Expedition would become part of northern trip lore, serving as a cautionary example of what not to do. That legacy was sealed in 1996, when expedition member George Grinnell published A Death on the Barrens. The book made Art Moffatt into a caricature—moody, perhaps even suicidal, self-absorbed, lapsing into bouts of tyranny. A man who was romantic to a fault, given to wilderness rhapsody, to living in the Zen of the moment while ignoring the necessities of keeping to a schedule and staying alive.
Skip Pessl remembers him differently.
“The conventional wisdom about this trip is unfair,” he says, “and the perception the public got of Art Moffat, an image largely based on Grinnell’s account, needs to be adjusted.”
As part of that process, Pessl has written his own detailed account of the expedition, using his journals and those of trip cohort Peter Franck, as a legacy to leave behind for his friends and family. Moffatt’s daughter Creigh gave Pessl her father’s personal journals to read. In her attic, Pessl unearthed Moffatt’s slides and filmstrips from the expedition, some of which are published here for the first time.
It helps to see the trip whole. In 1955, the tundra north was a true frontier. Before Moffatt, only the 1893 J.B. Tyrrell Expedition had canoed through the Dubawnt country. After corresponding with Tyrrell, who was then 96, Moffatt formed the purpose of his expedition in part around retracing much of Tyrrell’s route. It was a landscape only recently vacated by the traditional Caribou Inuit–treeless, full of caribou and musk ox, wolf and grizzly, littered with Stone Age artifacts. A landscape that was harsh, exacting, brutal, and excruciatingly lovely.
Gear of the day was primitive. Wool clothing, canvas packs, wood and canvas canoes, long, heavy wooden paddles. Moffatt eschewed creature comforts in an attempt to travel light. The team’s provisions consisted mostly of oatmeal, hardtack, macaroni and canned meat. Moffatt assumed that the party would subsist in part on fish and game gathered along the way.
Finally, Moffatt was driven by a passion to document his journey in film. The film would create a tribute to an austere, unknown geography and to Tyrrell’s remarkable journey. It also would serve as a professional benchmark in Moffatt’s adventurous career. He had visions of touring, lecturing, perhaps writing a book or producing a feature film.
Arthur Moffatt was born in 1919, the son of a stable worker on a Long Island estate. At 17, he’d paddled the Albany River in Northern Ontario alone, 500 miles from Sioux Lookout to Hudson’s Bay. He attended Dartmouth College—his father’s employer paid his tuition—and immediately after graduating in 1941 joined the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps attached to the British Eighth Army. A committed pacifist, Moffatt witnessed some of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II, but never carried a weapon. After the war, he became a wilderness guide, leading privileged young men on character-building expeditions into the north woods, including six more descents of the Albany. He became something of a guru, collecting disciples with the soft-spoken magnetism of his personality.
The 1955 Dubawnt expedition was longer, more remote and farther north than any trip Moffatt had previously attempted. His first recruit was Pessl, 22, a new Dartmouth graduate with whom he had shared two Albany expeditions. In letters to prospective trip members, Moffatt referred to Pessl as his “second in command.” Peter Franck, an 18-year-old who had just finished his freshman year at Harvard, also had paddled the Albany with Moffatt. Bruce LeFavour and Joe Lanouette, 19-year-old Dartmouth roommates, were eager but inexperienced. George Grinnell, 22, was a last-minute addition, recommended to Moffatt by a neighbor. The son of an investment banker from a prominent family, he had been asked to leave Harvard, and then enlisted in the Army, where he had been court-martialed for insubordination. He had no paddling experience.
The expedition spun its wheels for weeks in northern Saskatchewan, waiting for supplies and gear to arrive, and arranging transport to their starting point at Black Lake, where windy weather delayed them three more days. This stuttering pace is a familiar cadence for northern expeditions. Protracted daylight gives the impression of languid summer months, but summer is a fleeting, precious season in the high latitudes. Expeditions operate under the fierce deadline of coming winter.
Moffatt’s crew spent 23 days getting from the Black Lake put-in to the start of the Dubawnt current, a distance of less than 200 miles. They languished in windbound camps, and toiled across muskeg portages under the load of 12 weeks’ provisions. Days that could have been spent traveling were taken up with filming. Moffatt and Pessl, who were the most committed to the film project, saw these interludes as an essential trip goal. Others chaffed at the delays.
Hints of internal strife surfaced before the team had even reached the Dubawnt. Moffatt’s leadership rested on a preference for unanimity, while maintaining his control. Pessl noted that Moffatt’s ambivalence led to “asking opinions, then trying to sway differing views and finally following his own opinion anyway . . . cause for grumbling no matter what the outcome.”
For Pessl, the expedition began as a coming of age experience, and he reveled in the challenge. He solidified his second-in-command status by becoming the trip expert on reading and scouting rapids. He fell into the role of arbiter between Moffatt and the rest of the group, sometimes confronting Moffatt on behalf of the others.
He also came face to face with distressing aspects of human character. “People revealed themselves as imperfect,” Pessl says. “We all did.” Some trip members were lazy about pulling their weight. Grinnell balked against Moffatt’s authority. Petty bickering over minor issues–when to eat breakfast, where to camp—grated. Once, Pessl caught his mentor, Moffatt, stealing extra sugar from the bag.
“Some of it was shocking,” Pessl admits, “I was hurt to see those things.” But decades later, when Grinnell’s book was published and the paddling world accepted his interpretation of events as authoritative, Pessl felt unfairly represented. “Grinnell never contacted me, or, to my knowledge, any of the other trip members,” Pessl says.
For example, Grinnell’s book refers to a “Bowman’s Association” that “went into revolt.”
“News to me,” says Pessl, and when he asked Bruce LeFavour, one of the other bowmen, LaFavour responded that the “very idea is ridiculous. The BA was a joke, a way to bitch about conditions, not in any way a revolt.”
Grinnell’s depiction of Moffatt as moody and suicidal became an indelible part of Moffatt’s legacy, but Pessl saw little of that, and no hints of it in Moffatt’s journals. In his book, Grinnell writes at length about an incident in which Moffatt broke a cup, concluding that “with his broken tea cup lying shattered at his feet, Art became convinced that he would never see his wife and children again.”
“How did Grinnell get inside Art’s mind to know what he was ‘convinced’ of?” Pessl asks rhetorically. “There’s a fine line between poetic license and documentation. Unfortunately, I think Grinnell crossed that line with fabrications and misrepresentations. It’s too bad that Art Moffat’s reputation was based on that.”
In the summer of 1955, the weeks piled up. Rapids, weather, signs of Inuit, herds of caribou. Food supplies shrank. Despite their inexperience, the men managed to kill caribou, stretch their hides and dry the meat. They caught fish, and Grinnell even killed a ptarmigan with his hunting knife.
Despite their differences and daily conflicts, they were all deeply held by wilderness. Pessl fell into the spell of that experience, his empowering competence in the midst of numbing space and isolation.
Pessl’s journal from August 30 captures a glimpse. “Inside the tent, halfway inside the sleeping bag, caribou hide around my shoulders, pipe lit, I listened in a contented stupor to the storm outside. Warm, full and delightfully secure.”
Pessl defends this style of wilderness travel, the reverential trip pace, reminiscent of John Muir in the Sierra Nevada. “It has to be possible to embrace this total experience and also travel competently,” he says. “If you can’t experience the totality, you might as well do pushups in a closet.”
Still, time and good weather are precious commodities in the Northern summer. Moffatt himself was acutely aware how little margin for error the team had left itself. As early as July 31 he wrote in his journal that safe travel was “incompatible” with the film project. Yet he refused to give it up.
Hunger and the closing season weighed heavily on the team. Tempers flared, relationships frayed. The men questioned Moffatt’s leadership. On August 25, they challenged him about when to eat breakfast the next morning. Moffatt wanted to cook and eat at 4:30 when they woke; the others preferred to paddle in the early morning calm and eat later. The conflict encapsulated the group dynamic: the growing stress over the slow pace of the expedition, the extraordinary importance that half-starved men place on food, Pessl’s role as middleman, and Moffatt’s style of leadership. “I finally said we would have breakfast before we left, and that was that,” Moffatt wrote that night. “Everybody went to bed angry.”
A week later it snowed for the first time, and a week after that a blizzard confined the team to their battered tents for three days. “The shore turned to glistening ice, the tent sheltering Grinnell and Franck was demolished, with broken poles and torn fabric,” Pessl wrote in the aftermath. “The other tent was collapsed and half buried in snow.”
After the blizzard, the tempo of the trip shifted abruptly. “Up at daylight: four men breaking camp, the other two preparing breakfast of oatmeal with a carefully rationed teaspoon of sugar and a cup of tea,” Pessl wrote. “Every hour we stopped, crawled stiffly out of the canoes, and ran up and down the rocky shore until the circulation returned to warm and sting our numb feet. Snow flurries were frequent; the temperature near freezing; the wind blew incessantly.”
And then, 75 days in, that awful moment in the lonely rapid. Moffatt dead. The sudden swoop of isolation and panic.
For the next two days the survivors dried gear and reckoned with their situation. They had lost their leader, their rifles, the cook gear and most of their remaining food. The situation focused their resolve. Rather than risk danger in the rapids below Marjorie Lake, they resolved to portage eight miles overland to Aberdeen Lake, a grueling shortcut that allowed them to avoid about 100 paddling miles and most of the remaining whitewater. They paddled away on September 17, leaving behind a broken canoe, Art Moffatt’s body, and the film.
The group solidified around survival. “If the whole trip could have been like that, it would have been glorious,” Pessl says.
They struggled across the long portage for several days, finally reaching the current of the Thelon and racing toward the finish at Baker Lake. Ironically, the weather turned sunny and warm. On September 24, ten days after the fatal wreck, they reached the safety of Baker Lake.
“Stopped for lunch about ten miles from the post and then slowly paddled in, each in his own private world of relief, reluctance, memories and anticipation. If only Art could have been with us to feel these culminating moments and the thrill of a hard, fascinating journey at an end,” Pessl wrote that evening.
“That’s the other lesson I learned,” says Pessl. “To be patient. If we had just been patient and confident, if we hadn’t been in such a headlong rush that we didn’t stop to scout the rapid, we would have been fine. It’s very hard to do that, in the grip of panic, but it would have made all the difference. Art would have been with us, his life . . .” Pessl pauses. “When it comes down to it, even with everything that happened, we were so close.”
With shocking speed, less than an hour after their arrival in Baker Lake, Pessl’s four companions hopped a fortuitous flight south toward home. Pessl remained behind to tend to details.
He stayed until October 7th, and even considered wintering over in the north. In those weeks he built a coffin for Moffatt, made friends in the community, filled out reports for the RCMP. He wrote a great deal in Baker Lake, searching for meaning, wrestling with guilt, accepting his friend’s death.
His attempts to recover Moffatt’s body were thwarted by winter weather. Only later, after his departure, were the Mounties able to retrieve Moffatt and the films he labored so hard to complete. They buried his remains in the cemetery at Baker Lake.
Art Moffatt is gone, but the philosophy he lived by endures in the people with whom he shared it. Skip Pessl still finds spiritual solace in nature, and after nearly 60 years his memories of the barrens, and of Moffatt, are scratch-the-surface deep. Several years ago, during a 1,800-mile crossing from Antigua to Woods Hole, Massachusetts on the 41-foot sloop Riva, Pessl wrote in his journal, “The gently undulating ocean surface reminds me of the rolling terrain of the Barrens with a nearly featureless distant horizon beneath which mysterious life abounds, colossal energies prevail and this tiny creature is joyously part of it all.”